It won’t come cheaply and it won’t come easily, but climate action now has a shape and size that puts something close to tangibility on a concept that has felt abstract for too long.
n delivering the first national carbon budgets, the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) has provided something solid to aim for in the fight to control global temperature rise.
The percentages and tonnages they use are not everyone’s first language, but having figures means the difference between telling someone they must not be spendthrift and showing them exactly what they have in their wallet.
What Ireland has in its collective carbon wallet is 495 million metric tonnes (mt) of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) with which to conduct business until the end of the decade.
We produced 68.3mt in 2018, the base year to which comparisons are being made. We must, by law, get that down to 33.5mt by 2030.
We have 495mt to tide us over in the interim – 295mt between now and 2025 and 200mt from then to 2030 – as we find ways to cut and trim and squeeze and replace and innovate our way to a cleaner, carbon-free future.
What sectors of society will face which cuts will all become clearer in the coming weeks and months as Minister for Climate Action Eamon Ryan divides up the wallet.
That won’t come easily. As soon as the CCAC’s budget document was published last night, the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) issued a statement condemning the constraints under which farming – responsible for more than one-third of all national GHG – will have to operate.
There were actually no specific constraints set out in the document – that will be Minister Ryan’s job to deliver. However, the IFA has read between the lines and detected the clear narrative that agriculture, for all its special place in the Irish economy and society, will not escape having to do some hefty cutting.
When other sectors get their allowance, it is almost certain they will complain too. Steady political nerves will be required to insist pester power won’t work as there is no more to give.
None of this will come cheaply either. The CCAC says investment of at least €50bn will be needed over the decade to achieve the kind of changes needed across the economy and society, with transport and the residential sector together accounting for €18bn of that.
If the energy sector, as widely expected, is to be set a more ambitious target than other sectors (it has a headstart because of existing and planned wind energy infrastructure), the investment costs would rise by another €32bn.
Those investment costs won’t automatically show a return either.
At a household level, the cost of retrofitting with heat pumps will not be recouped in lower bills for decades.
To encourage retrofitting of the scale required, the State would have to heavily subsidise the cost, but that could cost €1bn-€1.5bn a year over the period 2026-2030 to achieve the necessary uptake.
Such subsidies would have to be funded by the taxpayer and, though the CCAC doesn’t say so directly, pushing the taxpayer for more is never popular.
What it says instead is that the least able to pay must be protected.
“It is critically important that the potential for adverse impacts is identified, recognised and addressed,” it says.
“Individuals and communities at risk of loss of employment or disproportionate costs need to be identified and assisted in making the transition.”
The CCAC throws up other challenges, stressing that biodiversity must be protected in the budget, not sacrificed because it is too costly to care for.
While emphasising the need for more clean energy and a dramatic increase in forestry, it warns against the “poor siting of renewable energy infrastructure and inappropriate land-use change such as over-reliance on, or poor siting of, mono-species afforestation.”
The budgets were delivered as the UN warned that current climate action pledges by 192 countries would see emissions rise by 16pc by the end of the decade, not fall by the 45pc required to prevent global warming escalating out of control.
On the same day, the World Meteorological Organisation reported that greenhouse gas emissions hit a record high last year despite the pandemic.
“The economic slowdown from Covid-19 did not have any discernible impact on the atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases and their growth rates,” it said.
“As long as emissions continue, global temperature will continue to rise.”